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Mar 20

Is Police Use of Force on the rise?

Posted on March 20, 2017 at 11:53 AM by Jamie Bastas

One of the more contentious aspects of policing is the use of force, ranging from bare hand force all the way up to the use of lethal force. While most of the attention in the media has been on the use of lethal force, on a daily basis, bare-hand or minimal force is by far the most dominant use of force for most police agencies in the US. The biggest evolution of technology as well as training and court cases over the last 5-10 years has been about less-lethal force, however. By “less lethal”, we mean force that has the potential to be lethal, but in general, its use isn’t likely to result in death. Examples of less-lethal force are “bean-bag” rounds, Electronic Control Devices (EDC’s such as Taser branded), etc.

Often overlooked in the analysis of police use of force is the fact that EVERY encounter with a person and involving a police officer is an “armed” encounter; this is due to the fact that police officers carry weapons, so at least one of the persons involved is always armed. This may sound like a silly distinction, but the number of officers assaulted with their own weapons is significant enough to bear in mind that the presence of the gun poses unique risks to all involved.

Another factor seemingly ignored in the media discussion about police use of force is the growing trend of assaults on officers. Data gleaned from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report over a period from 2011-2015 revealed an annual average of 48,351 officers assaulted. During this same time frame, the annual average of knife and gun assaults against officers included in that total is 2901; however, when factoring in ANY dangerous weapon, the annual average jumps to 14,370. Just to provide some additional perspective… is widely reported that the approximate number of law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. is about 18,000. And absent a national data base of deaths due to police use of lethal force, the range of estimates based on self-reporting, CDC medical reports, and media summaries reveals an annual average of less than 1000 incidents a year. This is contrasted by the average number of deaths from murders (17,793), deaths by falls (in 2015, 32,696), deaths from traffic crashes (in 2015, 37,757), deaths from accident poisoning (in 2015, 47,478), deaths by suicide (in 2015, 44,145) and deaths from medical errors (in 2015, 251,454).

While the numbers above provide some assurance that police use of lethal force is relatively low when compared to assaults on officers and other causes of unnatural deaths, a remaining question is, what is the trend line? Are police using lethal force at an increasing rate? Again the data gathered from the FBI and CDC shows that deaths from police use of force have been declining as long as data has been gathered, while the US population has been increasing. One can look to a couple of major city agencies that often drive the total numbers for more detailed analysis. In 1971, the New York City PD averaged 29.4 police shootings per week. In that same year, the Philadelphia PD averaged 1.5 police shootings per week. In a recent analysis, the Washington Post reported a current average NATIONWIDE of about 19 deaths from police shootings per week (a dramatic decrease when compared with NYPD alone!), while the US Population is 59% larger today than in 1971! In the last three years, the Newport News Police has had one fatal shooting by the police, and 3 non-fatal shootings. (NOTE: This number does not include canines or an accidental discharge of weapon)

Just for perspective, in the 40 years that I’ve been in policing, the number of officers killed in the line of duty has declined as well. In the late 1970’s, officer deaths averaged over 200 annually. In 2013, we hit the lowest number of officers killed annually since the 1940’s; however, this number has climbed since then, with more attention being paid to the increase in gun related deaths of officers. Given the high profile nature of some of the reported ambush killings of officers in the last two years, many officers across the country today are deeply concerned about this trend line. This is truly a case where the “good old days” weren’t so good, and we don’t want to return to them.

Another aspect of the national narrative on police use of lethal force that has not been explored in depth is the issue of police killing of unarmed persons. There is often the thought that unarmed = defenseless or helpless; the data shows otherwise. Each year in the US, roughly 3000 (of the 17,000 ) murders occur at the hands of “unarmed” persons, which the Washington Post defined as anyone not using a gun, knife, or motor vehicle. In this definition, “unarmed” persons could be using clubs, axes, bricks, etc. And, I refer back to my earlier comment that in every police encounter, a gun is involved, and attempting to wrestle away the officer’s gun might be by an “unarmed” person. In fact, for the last year where data was documented, 11% of officers killed in the line of duty were killed by “unarmed” suspects. Conversely, 9% of citizens killed by the police were “unarmed” by the Post’s definition. I recently read an outstanding book analyzing every single police killing of an “unarmed” person in 2015, and it was illuminating. While the authors are police subject matter experts, they were candid in pointing the finger at the leading contributing factor resulting in the death, including wrongful acts of the police. In many cases, persons under the influence of drugs and/or experiencing a major mental health episode were in the process of a serious assault against an officer who then acted in self-defense. For additional reference, I highly recommend the book In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians by Selby, Singleton, and Flosi.

As I hope you can see, while the national narrative has been dominated by the discussion on police use of lethal force, it remains a rare and isolated occurrence. Locally, the majority of force used by officers is at the lowest end of the spectrum. Our data shows the number of use-of-force incidents our officers have been involved in has steadily declined in the past four years and in 2016 Newport News officers were involved in 56 use-of-force incidents. Per policy, officers in the Newport News PD are required to complete a “Use of Force Report” whenever the following occur: (a) an officer discharges a firearm or less-lethal munitions, (b) when the use of force results in visible injury or death, (c) when someone complains of an injury inflicted by an officer’s use of force, (d) whenever pepper spray is used, (e) where defensive or active resistance is employed against an officer, (f) whenever an impact weapon is employed in an offensive manner, and (g) whenever an electronic controlled device is employed in a police encounter with a suspect. We review and track all uses of force, fully comply with the international accreditation standards on use of force, and incorporate what we learn from our analysis into the regular training we provide to officers.

You can be assured that your local officers are well trained in not only the decision making process regarding the use of force, but also in knowing what tools to use and when to use them. And, our officers can be assured that we stand behind them when following the training and policy guidance they’re provided. It’s a tough job being a police officer today, largely due to controversies surrounding use of force, so we owe it to our officers and the community to get it right.